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Keith Haring @ de Young

Untitled, October 1982, enamel, Day-Glo paint on metal, 90 1/2 x 72"

For a decade beginning in 1980, Keith Haring blazed a swath across the art world.  Emerging out of nowhere, and energized by hip-hop, graffiti and the anarchic freedom that prevailed in the years following New York’s rescue from-bankruptcy, Haring attained quick celebrity by propagating an instantly recognizable iconography in public places.  He died from AIDs in 1990 at age 31, having garnered universal acclaim. The Political Line, a tightly focused, if unimaginatively installed retrospective, reminds us of all the artist gave us during his too-short life and just how much his truly populist stance differed from that of today’s market-mesmerized artists. With works culled from all phases of his meteoric career, The Political Line, curated by Dieter Buchhart and Julian Cox, represents him well by focusing on two significant aspects: his politics and the electric/hyperkinetic line he created to express them.  

Haring was an outspoken advocate of human rights and open sexuality and a staunch opponent of nuclear weapons, Apartheid, ecocide, free-market capitalism, religion and the creeping colonization of the American mind by right-wing blowhards, chief among them Ronald Reagan.  He had a McLuhan-like grasp of how television could undermine democracy, and how technological advances like the computer would erode it even further. Haring was also a populist to the core, committed to making art for the public with little or no regard for money.  All of these themes get a thorough airing in The Political Line.  It sprawls across the basement galleries of the de Young, making it nearly as big as last year’s David Hockney retrospective. Every object in it tells a vital part of the Haring story.  
Untitled, 1981, diptych, a/c on enamel and fiberboard, 96 x 96 x 3/4"

On the political side, those familiar with Haring’s oeuvre aren’t likely to experience many revelations; for Haring, who was openly gay, the personal and the political were inseparable. The bigger story embedded in The Political Line has to do with the degree to which Haring continuously reformulated his visual vocabulary. The first thing you see upon entering the exhibition is a mark-covered Statue of Liberty, a “defilement” that sets the “political” tone.  From there, the transgressions, celebrations and protests accrue, reaching the first of many emotional peaks in the second gallery.  It’s filled with pictures that Haring posted or created in public.  They include a wall of drawings that graphically describe the pleasures and dangers of gay sex; a smaller wall devoted to penis drawings made outside New York landmarks (Tiffany’s, MOMA) to provoke passersby; and a notorious series of news collages that parodied sensational (“Reagan Slain by Hero Cop”) tabloid headlines.  Haring plastered them around the city.  Collectively, these works show the iconography Haring would employ throughout his career.  It includes: dancing crowds, snapping dogs, death-ray-emitting UFOs, club-wielding goons, erect penises, public sex acts, serpents, computer and TV monitors and, most importantly, a tribal-inspired type of hieroglyphic mark making that fused subject and ground in a way that made his allover/figurative paintings pulsate and glow like psychedelic poster art of the 1960s. 

Untitled, 1964, chalk on paper, 87 3/8  x 45 ¼"

The incubator for these ideas was the New York subway system. Between 1980 and 1985 Haring drew with chalk on papered-over billboards, executing drawings in minutes to evade the transit cops. They’re great guerilla art, and should rank among the show’s highlights.  Unfortunately, those on view are not among his best, and the darkened corridor in which they’re displayed doesn’t help.  It’s supposed to simulate the sickly fluorescent lighting of a subway platform, but it’s dimmer than any I’ve known.  Still, you can get a sense of the culture-jamming effect these illegal acts had on unwitting New York commuters.  One, of an evil-looking, TV-shaped robot, appears next to an ad for The Man Who Wasn’t There.  The movie’s tagline (“Being invisible gets you into spy rings, diplomatic circles and the girls’ locker room”) sums up Haring’s fugitive methods and ethos, as does a bit of graffiti (“Suck his invisible dick”) penned by someone, presumably not Haring, on the same poster.  

Haring was a keen student of semiotics and urban codes, and he knew how to mix things up to create and confuse meaning.  Rudimentary cartoon figures set against grounds made of dots, dabs, dashes and interlocking geometric marks were his main building blocks; and by varying their density and placement, he conveyed, in a sure and spontaneous hand, an enormous range of rhythms, moods and messages. Like Picasso, he could begin a line anywhere and finish a painting of any size without once stepping back.  Nowhere do we see this more powerfully than in an untitled tarp painting that covers an entire wall in the fourth gallery.  A black-on-yellow maze of abstract patterning, it shows figures in alligator masks frolicking atop an ecstatic crowd of dancers.  The effect is electric and borderline hallucinatory, reminiscent of New Zealand aboriginal art.  But here there’s a twist: Where animals in so many Haring paintings represent The Man, in this they’re joyous partygoers.  With such manic machinations, Haring, I sense, was trying to bridge contradictions within himself, between the downtown party animal/ hip-hop instigator, and the political activist.  He embraced extremes.  As Tony Schafrazi, his dealer, recounted in a spellbinding interview published in the exhibition catalog, Haring could dance until dawn, and, without sleep, work into the next day, executing paintings across the city.  “Nobody had that get up and go, drive and bounce,
Untitled (Apartheid), 1984, acrylic on canvas, 117 3/8 x 143 ¾”
to work in the street.  The twenty-four-hour physicality, the energy, and the fearlessness involved no one was aware of.  There was never a point of hesitation…The purpose of his energy was to touch as many people in as vast a territory as was possible.”  The artist once famously attended an anti-nuclear rally in Central Park where he handed out 20,000 posters printed at his own expense, each signed. (It’s hard to imagine any of his cohorts from the mid-1980s doing the same.)
At about three quarters of the way through the exhibition, where South Africa and Capitalism become targets, we see Haring’s political impulses operating at full force. He depicted the horrors of Apartheid point-blank and in bloody, brutal terms, with scenes of lynchings, beatings, stabbings and worse.  They are almost unbearable to look at. The grounds, for the most part, are painted in solid colors, his zingy lines suspended.  When they return in a nearby white-on-black painting from 1986, they depict the police state as a Boschean underworld filled with leering monsters. In this, his line assumes the qualities of African masks, demonstrating the ease

Untitled, June 10, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 118 1/2 x 120 1/2"

with which he absorbed influences.  In an adjacent gallery, where the topic shifts to Capitalism, Haring placed his line in the service of a horrible grotesque: a pink pig spewing a sea of e-waste, the color of money. Swimmers, to escape drowning in it, clutch at the animal’s teats, a bleak ode to Mammon.  On that subject Haring wasn’t averse to skewering himself.  He inserted his face into the center of torn $50 and $100 bills and sent them to friends as gifts, in gold frames.  And, in a jab at Warhol and Disney titled Andy Mouse, he caricatured himself as a Mouseketeer surrounded by dollar signs.  In the final gallery devoted to environmental destruction, The Last Rainforest shows Haring’s lines becoming an impenetrable thicket, reminiscent of Pollock’s and Mark Tobey’s in their dense layering. 

Haring, when he was alive, packed his shows salon-style, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of sensory overload. He probably would have hated the orderliness and space afforded his work by The Political Line.  No matter.  Haring, in his politics and in his line, remains irrepressibly alive. One only wishes that he’d lived longer.  Had that happened he might have become our Ai Wei Wei.  
Keith Haring:“The Political Line” @ the de Young Museum through February 16, 2015

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